The White House, emphasizing its policy of refusing to bargain with terrorists, Tuesday called the release in Lebanon of hostage Mithileshwar Singh “a rather obvious ploy” to manipulate the media and sought to minimize any link between Singh’s release and the prospect of winning freedom for nine American hostages.
President Reagan expressed pleasure at Singh’s release Monday night after more than 20 months of captivity but said the United States had not negotiated with his abductors, a group that calls itself Islamic Jihad for the Liberation of Palestine.
Reagan, speaking to reporters about the U.S. hostages at the start of a meeting with Republican leaders, said their plight “has been a great problem for us and has been something that has been very much in our mind.”
But he declared: “We’re not engaged in any negotiations with the captors.”
Singh, an Indian national who was abducted in Beirut last year along with three American colleagues, was formally turned over to U.S. and Indian diplomats in Damascus on Tuesday. He said he had been well treated by his Muslim captors but that there is “no substitute for freedom.”
Nonetheless, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater stressed that Singh’s release has not improved relations between Washington and Tehran.
“One person has been released, and nine have not been,” he said, noting that U.S. officials have consistently said the hostages would have to be released before the United States and Iran could work toward warmer diplomatic relations.
“The hostage situation has not changed. Our concern has not changed. Policy has not changed,” Fitzwater said.
U.S. officials said they continue to believe that Iran has influence with the captors but asserted that was not enough to prompt a resumption of relations, which were severed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 after the seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
The United States has some indirect contact with Iran through the U.S. Embassy in Switzerland and other “third parties,” U.S. officials said.
Last week at the United Nations, Secretary of State George P. Shultz said there were “certain problems” that blocked talks between the two countries, including the hostages and the issue of terrorism.
Citing Shultz’s comments, Fitzwater said: “If improved relations are what is desired, there are avenues to do that. And the first step would be to release all the hostages.”
He called Singh’s release “a rather obvious ploy to manipulate and influence the news media.” He asserted that the captors’ release of pictures of hostages “plays on the sympathies of Americans” and admonished the media to “remember some of the lessons that they should have learned from Iran-Contra, just like we remembered our lessons.”
Meanwhile, in Paris, former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr said in an interview with news agencies that secret U.S.-Iranian negotiations have been stepped up in the past two weeks in an effort to secure the hostages’ freedom.
“There are secret negotiations going on regarding four problems--the Iran-Iraq War, the role of the Iranian government in the region, international terrorism and especially the American hostages,” Bani-Sadr said.
He said he had also received a report from an Iranian, whom he refused to identify, that an envoy of Vice President George Bush met secretly with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Larijani in Switzerland to discuss the release of American hostages.
But the former president said he has been unable to confirm that report with his regular Iranian sources.
‘No Such Contacts’
In Geneva, U.S. Mission spokesman John Garner said, “We know nothing about any such talks, and no U.S. government official or officials are involved in any such contacts.”
Fitzwater denied that representatives of Bush have been in touch with Iran over the hostages. The Administration does not see the hostage issue in political terms, he said, “because we want no political involvement at all.”
But political analysts said it is inevitable that the issue is a political one, just as it was in 1981, when Iran released the hostages taken in the embassy seizure on the day Reagan was inaugurated after defeating Carter.
“It has to have an impact on presidential politics,” Stephen Wayne, a political science professor at George Washington University, said. If U.S. hostages are released, he said, “it works for the party in power, similar to a rocket going up without crashing.”
Reagan, asked whether the captors were trying to manipulate the presidential election, quipped, “If they are, I hope they’re on the right side.”
‘Thank God I Am Free’
Singh, 60, walked into the Syrian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday surrounded by Syrian plainclothes agents. To waiting reporters, he said: “Thank God I am free. I am very happy. But I am sorry that my colleagues and friends are still in captivity. I hope they will be freed soon.”
Pressed for details about his captivity, Singh confirmed that he had spent the entire period with the three Americans--Alann Steen of Boston, Jesse Turner of Boise, Ida., and Robert Polhill of New York. All four were teaching at the Beirut University College in predominantly Muslim West Beirut when they were abducted in January, 1987.
“It is better for me not to say anything,” Singh said in reply to requests for more information about his captors. “Please respect my freedom and let me be quiet.”
But he added, “I had better treatment than I was expecting, but there is no substitute for freedom.” He said his captors had given him insulin for his diabetes.
Singh, a professor of business at the college, is an Indian national with permanent resident status in the United States. Because of this and his association with the American hostages in Lebanon, he was handed over in Damascus to U.S. Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian. Also on hand was B. Balarishnan, the Indian charge d’affaires.
Singh was taken to Djerejian’s residence and later left for Wiesbaden, West Germany, where the United States has reception facilities for released hostages.
Djerejian thanked Syria for its “important role” in obtaining Singh’s release, but he gave no indication of what that contribution entailed.
Singh’s wife, Lalmani, was in Beirut when her husband was formally released in Damascus. Before leaving for Syria, she told reporters, “Today is a very happy day for me, and I still haven’t seen my husband.”
In Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, speculation continued about the abductors’ decision to release an Indian hostage after they had reportedly come under severe pressure from Syria to release an American or a British hostage.
Some analysts said the abductors had intentionally misled the Syrians in an effort to embarrass them.
May reported from Washington and Wallace from Beirut.